The ADA & US Government: What you need to know in 6 minutes


Posted by Jamie Black

Topic(s): Financial Reporting, Style & Substance, Budget Book, Comprehensive Annual Financial Report

Read Time: minute(s)

While many have heard of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), few truly understand its importance:

  • Why should a finance or budget professional care about it?
  • What do the laws (there are three) specifically require?
  • How must I comply with the laws?
This article answers these questions.

1) Finance & Budget Departments Should Care

Designing documents that are easily understood by your audience is challenging. When some of your audience have visual impairments, there is an additional set of considerations. There are three primary reasons you should care about this topic:

  1. As a public sector organization, you want your message available to everyone. Approximately 5.5 million people have visual impairment in North America today. This is expected to double by 2050.  To “read” your Comprehensive Annual Financial Report or Budget Book, visually impaired individuals must use assistive technology. These tools read the PDF to them electronically. Unless specifically designed for accessibility however, your PDFs will not be readable by assistive technology.
  2. Your organization is legally required to ensure all public documents are accessible (readable by assistive technology). Accessibility for your documents is legally mandated if:
    • you work in a local government, a federal agency, or, a place of "public accommodation" (privately-owned, leased or operated facilities like hotels, restaurants, retail merchants, doctor’s offices, golf courses, private schools, daycare centers, health clubs, sports stadiums, movie theaters, and so on), and
    • you are located in the United States, and
    • you publish content to a publicly accessible website.
  3. Numerous lawsuits have been launched for failure to ensure accessibility both for businesses and local governments. As identified by Seyfarth Shaw LLP, these lawsuits are becoming more and more prevalent.
    ADA Lawsuits increasing from 2014 to 2019 from 4 thousand to over 11 thousand a year 

2) The Laws Mandate Accessibility

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

In 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to require Federal agencies to make their Electronic and Information Technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities. The law (29 U.S.C § 794 (d)) applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology. Under Section 508, agencies must give disabled employees and members of the public access to information comparable to the access available to others.

On January 18, 2017, the U.S. Access Board published a final rule updating accessibility requirements for Information and Communication Technology (ICT) covered by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and Section 255 of the Communications Act. E205.4 of this final rule stipulates the accessibility standard mandated by Section 508:

Electronic content shall conform to Level A and Level AA Success Criteria and Conformance Requirements in Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (

WCAG 2.0) (incorporated by reference, see 702.10.1).

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

It was signed into law on July 26, 1990, by President George H.W. Bush. The ADA is one of America's most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else.

The ADA has three "Titles" (think sections), and it is Title II that applies to the programs and activities of state and local government (title I is employment practices and title III covers private entities that are considered public accommodations). 

While the ADA does not explicitly reference requirements for web content, the Department of Justice (DOJ) Civil Rights division has confirmed their opinion that the ADA does in fact cover content on web sites.

Unfortunately, there is no technical definition for ensuring your web content complies with the ADA. Congress sought clarification from the DOJ in 2018, but their response was noncommittal as to the standard required:

Absent the adoption of specific technical requirements for websites through rulemaking, public accommodations have flexibility in how to comply with the ADA's general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication.

In late July 2019, a series of questions were again raised to the DOJ from several senators looking for clarification. In particular, the senators attempted to learn if the DOJ "consider WCAG 2.0 an acceptable compliance standard". No response from the DOJ has been received as of this writing.

California Assembly Bill No. 434

This legislation states that by July 1, 2019 all web content of the state agency or entity must meet...

the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, or a subsequent version, published by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium at a minimum Level AA success criteria.

3) Standards Determine Compliance

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

Two of the three pieces of legislation above specifically reference Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 as the relevant standard that our documents must conform to.

These guidelines were developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C),  an international community that develops open standards for the Web. WCAG 2.0 contains 12 guidelines designed to make content published on the web more accessible for those with impairment.

Testable criteria are also provided to allow for the assessment of your content. Any piece of content can be assessed into one of three levels of conformance : A (lowest), AA, and AAA (highest). Note that the legislation mentioned above specify the level that your content must achieve.

PDF/Universal Accessibility (PDF U/A)

We mention this standard here as you may hear it and be confused by it. PDF/UA is the informal name for ISO 14289, the International Standard for accessible PDF technology. A technical specification intended for developers implementing PDF writing and processing software, PDF/UA provides definitive terms and requirements for accessibility in PDF documents and applications.

PDF/UA defines the technical specifications to enable PDF documents to meet WCAG 2.0, but WCAG 2.0 has additional requirements that call for an author’s attention. For these and other additional requirements, the W3C’s technique documents (both general and PDF-specific techniques) guide authors interested in complying with WCAG 2.0.

In short, if you are a state or local government in the United States and want to be confident that you comply with the various pieces of legislation, all content you publish to the web must conform to WCAG 2.0 level AA standard.

Watch this space for our next article on the technical requirements of WCAG 2.0 and a methodology to employ to make your published documents fully compliant with the standards mandated by the ADA, Section 508, and California Bill 434. 



For more on this topic(s), see: Financial Reporting, Style & Substance, Budget Book, Comprehensive Annual Financial Report

Originally Posted on 05 February, 2020

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